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Coroner Launches Internet Site on Unclaimed Bodies

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Keith Ray Zorn died alone, sprawled face down outside the mini-mall storage room where he had lived a hermit’s life, a gray-bearded drifter felled by a fatal heart attack.

The 60-year-old transient’s death on Super Bowl Sunday 1998 left authorities with a nagging question: Who ultimately cared that he was gone?

For weeks, a team of investigators searched for Zorn’s next of kin, family members who could collect his body and remaining effects. Despite calling scores of Zorns nationwide, they came up empty and the unclaimed body was cremated and buried in a pauper’s grave.

“Somebody, somewhere, loves this man,” said Randy Emon, an inspector for the San Bernardino County coroner’s office. “We just haven’t been able to find them.”

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In death, however, Keith Ray Zorn has left a unique and, authorities hope, lasting legacy.

Frustrated by his inability to locate family for Zorn and hundreds of deceased victims like him, Emon has created what authorities say is the nation’s first public access Internet clearinghouse for information on unclaimed bodies whose identities are known.

A new World Wide Web site launched this week (https://www.unclaimedpersons.com) by San Bernardino County coroners will eventually include vital information on deceased people whose bodies remain unclaimed at morgues and coroner’s offices around the country and possibly the world.

“This will serve a very useful purpose,” said Edmund Donoghue, president of the National Assn. of Medical Examiners and chief of the Cook County coroner’s office in Illinois. “It will make it possible for people to check for this type of information themselves. Now when they call a coroner’s office it depends on the aptitude of the person who happens to answer the phone. I think it will bring people some peace of mind.”

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Family members in search of lost relatives now can access the federal government’s Social Security death index. But officials say that process is cumbersome and that the deceased’s Social Security number is needed to enter the system, where information such as place of death and contact numbers for an investigator are nonetheless difficult to obtain.

Emon stresses that the new Web site will offer information only on deceased persons whose identities are known. Other sites operated by missing persons groups and a new one being established by the state attorney general’s missing and unidentified persons program offer information on unidentified bodies, or John and Jane Does.

Law enforcement officials and private agencies dealing with missing persons are hailing the San Bernardino Web site as a desperately needed development in the effort to solve the mysteries involving the tens of thousands of people who die each year nationwide and whose families cannot be found.

“For years, we’ve pushed for a Web site for unclaimed bodies that have a name,” said Doyle Tolbert, the investigator in charge of family notification for the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, which each year handles 250 unclaimed bodies. “They’ve had databases for unidentified corpses. What about the identified? They have family too.”

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“This is the logical next step on the Internet,” said Julie Cartwright, a spokeswoman for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Arlington, Va. “Certainly this is a resource for families who have no idea where their child is. Mothers and fathers can go there and see once and for all if their loved one has turned up dead. It adds to the list of grim little jobs parents have when their child goes missing.”

San Bernardino coroners now include on their own Web site (https://www.co.san-bernardino.ca.us/coroner) a database of more than 250 locally unclaimed bodies--listing name, age, place of birth, place of death, last known city of residence and the name of the investigator to contact.

One-third of the deceased on the list were homeless, Emon said. Most others are elderly people who died in a retirement or convalescent home. Their ages range from 25 to 80; they are equally divided between male and female.

When they have no name for a corpse, investigators use fingerprints, dental and medical records in an attempt to determine a deceased person’s identity. Then they begin the search for family, using driver’s licenses, marriage licenses, birth certificates and voter registration forms.

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When their leads run out, often after months of work, San Bernardino officials cremate the body and store the remains for about a year, then bury them in a collective grave in a county cemetery, Emon said.

In December, Emon sent letters to coroners in each of California’s 58 counties, inviting them to add their own unclaimed bodies to the San Bernardino County coroner’s database.

“But we realized people might be reluctant to look for a missing person last seen in Eureka on a coroner’s list from San Bernardino,” said Emon, a 45-year-old former police detective with a penchant for computers. “So we decided to create a whole new Web site exclusively for information on unclaimed people that families could access anywhere in the world.”

He hopes that through media coverage and assistance from coroner’s associations and missing persons groups, medical examiners worldwide will get word of the Web site and send data about their unclaimed bodies.

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Los Angeles coroners already have hundreds of cases they plan to post on the Web site.

“We think this is going to be a big help to families,” said Tolbert. “Because people now looking for a body have to check each of 58 counties in California--and think about how many counties there are nationwide. They have to call each one and ask if they have a deceased. It’s torturous work for a grieving family.”

Cartwright said the Web site could provide the missing link when police departments fail to share information on cases when bodies are found and identified. “Often, officers are so busy they don’t pass on information about an identified body to police colleagues a few miles away, let alone across state borders,” she said. She hopes that coroners will do a better job.

“Police searching for missing children have found out many years later that the child’s body or cremated remains has been inside a morgue just a few miles way, languishing there for years while the family has searched and searched,” she said.

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Tolbert said burying a body without notifying relatives also frustrates investigators.

“I have the body, I have a name. I know the guy’s whole story, who he lived with, where he worked, even where he’s from. But there’s one little thing missing, who his exact next of kin are and where I can find them,” he said. “When you’ve worked a case for two or three months and everything just dries up, it makes you crazy.”

Coroners from across the state have begun to forward their lists of unclaimed bodies to Emon. In tiny Del Norte County, the caseload consists of one person.

“We don’t have that many in our area, everybody knows everyone else pretty much,” said Joanne Goodlin, an investigator with the Del Norte County coroner’s office. “This is the first one that’s stumped us in quite a long while.”

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The victim is a 69-year-old transient named Walter Raymond Silva, a man with a personal trail stretching from New England to Florida to Seattle, who authorities believe has three estranged children out there. Somewhere.

“Sometimes family members like to know,” Goodlin said. “If you had a father who became dislocated from the family because of differences or lifestyle, after so many years wouldn’t you want to know if he was alive or dead?” she asked.

“Some people wouldn’t, they couldn’t care less. But some want to know. I know I would.”


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